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Stress and Injury

October 25th 2022

Over the years sport related injuries have gained increased research attention due to the number of incidences that occur and the physical and psychological effects it brings. A factor which has been proven to have significant negative impact on injury is stress. Stress within sport can come in different forms such as emotional (psychological) stress, nutritional stress and physical stress. Stress can also impact an athlete before, during and after injury, including throughout their recovery process. It is important to remember everyone is affected by stress differently.

As mentioned above there are many different ways stress can impact injury and overall sports performance. Emotional stress can involve negative effects such as anxiety, in the context of physiological stress response that includes cardiovascular and hormonal changes. Emotional stress most commonly occurs when an individual thinks they do not have the resources to meet situational demands effectively.

Within psychological (emotional) stress there are different types of stressors which can be involved including competitive, organisational and personal stressors. Competitive stressors are related directly to the sporting situation the athlete finds themselves in. Some examples of competitive stressors include, injury, returning from injury, pressure to perform well, the opposition and competition for a place within a team. Each athlete will respond to stressors in a different way and it is important to acknowledge their stressors and find the best way of dealing with the situation for each individual.

Organisational stressors are described as ongoing situations between the individual and the environment in which they are working. Organisational stressors can be attributed to and solved by those surrounding the team such as coaches, managers and teammates, etc. Common organisational stressors include conflict with teammates, issues at training with change in set up or coach, lack of support and travel.

Finally, personal stressors play a big role in psychological stress. Personal stressors involve the environmental and personal demands placed on the athlete associated with any personal life events. Personal stressors may include traumatic life events, financial issues, lifestyle issues and outside commitments such as work or university.

Another type of stress which plays a part on an athlete and injury is nutritional stress. Nutritional stress is a result of a lack of proper nutrition and lack of the correct nutrients needed to perform normal bodily functions and activities.  Having optimal nutrition plays a part on controlling inflammation, providing key
nutrients for rebuilding injured tissue, minimizing the loss of muscle tissue and helping to strengthen and maintain muscular strength. Having good nutrition may not be able to prevent injuries but it can play a part in how fast an athlete recovers. Poor nutrition can lead to conditions that increase the risk of injury and exercise related fatigue.

Physical stress is a feeling of physical tension, which can come from any event involving or characterized by vigorous or forceful bodily activity. Physical stress that occurs from an acute injury can be anything such as pulling a muscle, ligament sprains, fractures and dislocations. However, a lot of physical stress may not be from such specific events. Physical stress coming from overuse or a longstanding condition is known as chronic stress. Chronic stress can occur from things as simple as not having good desk posture creating stress on the body just as harmful as having a specific injury.

The Williams and Anderson Stress-injury model suggests that when athletes experience stressful situations such as demanding practice or a crucial competition, their history of stressors, personality characteristics and coping mechanisms contribute to how they respond to the stress. History of stressors
can include anything such as major life events, daily hassles and also history of injury whether that is an acute or chronic injury. This suggests that the more stressful and challenging the situation and environment is to cope with then the more chance the athlete has of becoming injured.

Image: Williams and Andersen stress-injury model (1998).

Whilst some athletes may look forward to returning from injury, for others this may be a stressful process. External motivations such as wanting to be part of a team again may help to motivate athletes to return to sport. However, this can also cause athletes to return to sport before they are ready which could
consequently create a more stressful experience. Others may suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder if they are returning from a traumatic or life changing injury, so therefore, it is important to help the athlete return to sport at their own pace which is right for them.

Although there are lots of stressors surrounding injury and returning to sport, exercise usually helps to relieve stress. Being active can help to boost your feel good endorphins as well as acting as a distraction from daily life and stressors. Other things such as stretching and breathing techniques can help to control
stress. Hopefully, this article helps explain the effects stress can have on an athlete and please check out the video with this month’s newsletter which demonstrates some stress relieving exercises to do at home.

Abi Wheatley, Sports Therapist